As a personal trainer, the question I get asked more than any other is: “What’s the best exercise to get a six-pack?” I’ve worked with many women who were super lean and fit but still had a noticeable pooch. There are a lot of factors at play that all have to come together to score you tight, toned abs, so I designed an action plan I like to refer to as the “Trifecta of Abs.” Drumroll please:
1. First, Focus on Total-Body Strength Training
Your first stop on the train to six-pack town should actually be total-body strength training since more muscle means lower levels of cortisol (a hormone related to stress), more stable blood-sugar levels, and better carbohydrate management. All of this means a leaner tummy for you. Include two 35-minute sessions every week, hitting as many of your major muscle groups as you can: legs, back, chest, shoulders, and arms (biceps and triceps). While you can mix up which exercises you do, a good place to begin is the workout detailed below.
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It’s also helpful to do some targeted exercises to improve your core. Every week, include three 10-minute abs-specific workouts. Be sure to include one movement from each of the three categories below:
2. Then, De-Bloat Your Diet
At the end of the day, a great deal of the progress you’ll see depends on your diet. Fat loss really does come down to a slight reduction in calories, but here are a few other key moves to focus on:
- Eat lean protein paired with slow-digesting carbohydrates (such as turkey and sweet potatoes or egg whites and vegetables). Do this every three to four hours to stabilize your blood-sugar levels.
- Eat brightly colored vegetables at least two to three times every day to give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to increase lean muscle mass and decrease body fat. Include both raw and gently cooked vegetables to optimize nutrition.
- Cut back on foods made with refined flours and yeast. The combination of flour (even gluten-free) and yeast can add to bloating.
- Avoid alcohol, as it causes a spike in blood-sugar levels and disrupts the balance of bacteria in your digestive tract (which also leads to bloating).
- Go easy on sauces, condiments, and added salt. All are common vehicles for fat, sugar, preservatives, and sodium, which can cause puffiness.
- Do what you gotta do to stay regular. When waste builds up in your colon, gases are produced that cause bloating. Womp womp.
3. Finally, Start a Cardio Habit
When done properly, cardio can help you max out your fat-burning potential—so you say sayonara to the stubborn layer on your midsection.
I suggest four to five 35-minute sessions of steady-state cardio in the beginning. Yes, interval training helps burn fat. However, I find that the vast majority of women respond best to steady-state cardio at the right intensity. Steady-state cardio burns almost as many calories and just as much fat as interval training—and you don’t get the side effects that often come with interval training, like hunger and fatigue. The sweet spot for most women is 70 to 80 percent of their theoretical max heart rate. This is the range where cardio feels good and challenging but manageable (about a six to seven out of 10, with one being nearly falling sleep on the couch and 10 being sprinting as hard as you can). You can calculate your target heart rate here:
If you’re trying to get ridiculously ripped—and doing steady-state cardio is a breeze for you—that’s when you might want to move on to interval training during your cardio workouts.
There you have it! Keep in mind that there’s a reason why very few people have super lean abs: It takes effort, consistency, and dedication. But it’s worth it!
Holly Perkins is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, founder of Women’s Strength Nation, and author of Lift to Get Lean.